Why You May Be Mistaken About Protein

One of the first questions meat-eaters ask vegans and vegetarians is, "How do you get enough protein without eating meat?"  I know this because I've been one of those meat eaters to ask this question of a vegan or a vegetarian. 

Now that I'm on the other side of the question, I find it a bit frustrating, not because the inquirer doesn't mean well, but because protein is probably one of the least difficult nutrients to get enough of on a vegan or vegetarian diet (calcium, iron, and vitamin B12, I'm finding, are much trickier).  

HOW MUCH IS ENOUGH

But let's take a step back from the question, "How do you get enough protein?" and first ask, "How much protein do we really need?"  The answer depends on your body composition.  

The recommended daily intake of protein is 0.36 grams per pound of body weight.  I'm a 125 pound person, so I need 45 grams of protein per day.  

Okay, so we know how much we need, but where do we find it?  

Here's a little tidbit that may give you some perspective: all proteins start as plants.  

Animals synthesize muscle from the plants they eat.  So animal protein is really just recycled plant protein.  Think about it, all of the biggest, strongest, most muscular animals on the planet (think buffalo, rhinoceros, gorilla) are all herbivores.  Do you think gorillas worry about getting enough protein?  Exactly.  (Okay, to be fair, some species of gorilla do eat insects, but they comprise only about 2-3% of their diet.)

Here's another one for you: almost all plant foods have some quantity of protein in them.  Some have more than others, as we'll see below, but pretty much everything you eat will contribute to your daily protein requirement.  

IF YOU'RE ACTIVE

"What if you're an athlete?  Don't you need more protein?"

Yes, but you also need more calories in general, more carbohydrates and fats too. As long as you're getting enough calories to replenish what you've burned, and you're getting them from healthy plant-based foods, chances are you're getting more than enough protein to repair your muscles and fuel your training. 

WORKING EXAMPLE

Let's take a look at a sample meal plan, and examine the protein breakdown: 

BREAKFAST

  • 1 cup diced watermelon (0.9 g protein)
  • 2 slices whole wheat bread (7.2 g protein) with 2 tbsp peanut butter (8 g protein)
  • 1 tbsp hummus (1.2 g protein) with 100 g carrot matchsticks (0.9 g protein)

LUNCH 

  • 1/2 cup cooked black beans (19 g protein)
  • 1 cup cooked white rice (4.3 g protein)
  • 1 cup cooked broccoli (2.6 g protein)

SNACK

  • 1/2 c whole almonds (15 g protein)
  • 1 apple (0.3 g protein)

DINNER

  • 100 g cooked pasta (2.9 g protein)
  • 1 cup cooked spinach (0.9 g protein)
  • 1/2 cup cooked lentils (9 g protein)
  • 1 oz dark chocolate (1.4 g protein)

Total protein: 73.6 grams

Without even trying, or relying on synthetic protein supplements, I got 163% of my recommended daily intake of protein.  

The takeaway: if you're getting enough calories, you're probably getting more than enough protein.  It's as simple as that.  

In upcoming posts I'll be delving into the nutrients that are a bit trickier, how to get enough of them, and weigh the pros and cons of supplementing with, well, supplements.

More to come.